From Robbins to McKinsey

Stefan Collini

  • Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System
    Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, £79.00, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 10 181222 1

One of the most fascinating yet elusive aspects of cultural change is the way certain ideals and arguments acquire an almost self-evident power at particular times, just as others come to seem irrelevant or antiquated and largely disappear from public debate. In the middle of the 18th century, to describe a measure as ‘displaying the respect that is due to rank’ was a commonplace commendation; in the middle of the 19th, affirming that a proposal contributed to ‘the building of character’ would have been part of the mood music of public discourse; in the middle of the 20th, ‘a decent standard of life’ was the goal of all parties and almost all policies. As with changes in the use of language generally, readers and listeners become inured to what were once jarring neologisms or solecisms, while phrases that were once so common as to escape notice become in time unusable.

It will be a long time before historians can adequately chart, let alone explain, the changes in public discourse in Britain in the past half-century, but when that task is attempted, official publications will have a special evidential value. They tend not to bear the marks of an individual sensibility, but rather to deploy the idioms and arguments thought to command the widest acceptance, even when – perhaps especially when – the proposals they contain are novel and controversial. Since perhaps the 1970s, certainly the 1980s, official discourse has become increasingly colonised by an economistic idiom, which is derived not strictly from economic theory proper, but rather from the language of management schools, business consultants and financial journalism. British society has been subject to a deliberate campaign, initiated in free-market think tanks in the 1960s and 1970s and pushed strongly by business leaders and right-wing commentators ever since, to elevate the status of business and commerce and to make ‘contributing to economic growth’ the overriding goal of a whole swathe of social, cultural and intellectual activities which had previously been understood and valued in other terms. Such a campaign would not have been successful, of course, had it not been working with the grain of other changes in British society and the wider world. Very broadly speaking, the extension of democratic and egalitarian social attitudes has been accompanied by the growth of a kind of consumerist relativism. The claim that one activity is inherently of greater value or importance than another comes to be pilloried as ‘elitism’. Arguments are downgraded to ‘opinions’: all opinions are equally valuable (or valueless), so the only agreed criterion is what people say they think they want, and the only value with any indefeasible standing is ‘value for money’. Government documents issued in the last 20 years or so are immediately identifiable by the presence of such buzz phrases as ‘it is essential to sustain economic growth and maintain Britain’s global competitiveness,’ ‘consumers must have a choice of services,’ ‘competition will drive up quality’ and so on.

Higher education policy has been something of a barometer of the growing dominance of the worldview expressed in these phrases. The frequent shuffling of responsibility for universities around government departments in recent decades illustrates the way the weather has changed. For many years following its establishment in 1919, the University Grants Committee, composed largely of senior academic figures, made a case to the Treasury for the size of grant needed by the universities, then distributed that sum among them. Until 1964 the UGC dealt directly with the Treasury, but then the new Labour government set up the Department of Education and Science (DES), which oversaw the UGC until the latter was abolished in 1989. It was replaced by the Universities Funding Council, which included members drawn from the world of business, in a deliberate attempt to make the funding of universities more directly responsive to government priorities. With the abolition of the distinction between universities and polytechnics in 1992 a new body, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (with cognate bodies in the other parts of the UK), was set up to oversee higher education funding as a whole. In 1995 its parent ministry, the DES, was dissolved and replaced by a new ministry, the Department for Education and Employment. In 2001 this was superseded by the Department for Education and Skills, which was itself broken up in 2007 and replaced by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. Most recently, in 2009, responsibility for higher education passed to the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

By this point things had long been further complicated by the existence of bodies such as the Medical Research Council, which were variously the responsibility of the Cabinet Office or the science branch of the DES. In 1992 the Office of Science and Technology was set up, at first answerable to the Cabinet Office, but from 1995, tellingly, to the Department of Trade and Industry. In early 2006, it was renamed the Office of Science and Innovation, and subsequently absorbed into the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills in the summer of 2007. The detail of these changes may not be riveting, but what it signals about the reshaping of official attitudes towards higher education is striking. Universities and research have come more and more under the aegis of bodies whose primary concerns are business, trade and employment. The terms in which the activities of universities are now discussed have been honed in shaping other kinds of ‘corporate and business unit strategy’ (the ‘focus’ of the work of the economist who wrote BIS’s ‘Supporting Analysis for the Higher Education White Paper’).

Back in 1963, one of the most interesting and, in its way, radical proposals of the Robbins Report was that a new ministry should be created to give universities more direct representation within government. Arguing against the then fashionable idea that universities and schools should be brought together in a new Ministry of Education (which is what happened the following year), Robbins maintained that the connections between universities and schools were less close than between universities and the ‘other forms of organised research’ that operated on a version of the arm’s length principle: the research councils, the Arts Council, the Commission on Museums and Galleries and so on. His committee proposed setting up a Ministry of Arts and Sciences with overall responsibility for these institutions, the point being to ‘recognise the importance to the spiritual health of the community of a proper organisation of state support for learning and the arts’. Compare this with the present arrangement, in which higher education is classed as just one part of the remit of a Department of Business, and universities are treated primarily as contributors to economic growth.

As the recent history of ministerial pass the parcel should indicate, the subordination of universities to perceived economic need has been pursued by both Conservative and Labour governments. Much of the language of the present White Paper is to be found almost verbatim in Higher Ambitions: The Future of Universities in a Knowledge Economy, produced by BIS in 2009 when Peter Mandelson was the minister. It should also be remembered that it was a Labour government that first introduced tuition fees (in 1998) and then ‘variable fees’ (in 2006). Variable fees turned out, of course, not to be variable, as all universities very soon charged the top rate. The frustration felt in the policy-making world at this fresh demonstration of universities’ unwillingness to operate according to good market principles wasn’t the least of the impulses that had to be accommodated by the independent committee, set up in 2009 with cross-party agreement, to review the effect of the 2006 fees and to come up with a sustainable form of future funding for higher education.

Lord Browne, a businessman with no particular experience of teaching or working in a university, was chosen to chair the seven-person committee, whose members included the head of McKinsey’s Global Education Practice, a former Treasury economist who is a member of the UK Competition Commission, and a banker; one of the two university vice-chancellors on the committee had also worked in the engineering industry. Their report was due in the summer of 2010, after the election. But while the committee was still deliberating, the new coalition government was drawing up the attack on public services known as the Comprehensive Spending Review, and when the report did appear, its radical proposal was to cut almost all public funding of teaching, leaving universities to replace the lost income by charging students much higher fees. (We shall have to wait until historians can inspect official records from the summer of 2010 to document exactly how it was that Lord Browne’s ‘independent’ review happened to come up with a proposal that fitted so exactly with the coalition’s not yet announced spending plans.) The Browne Report was a shoddy, ill-argued and under-researched document which attracted a firestorm of criticism, but the coalition immediately announced that it would ‘accept’ its main recommendations. (In practice, it has had progressively to abandon several aspects of Browne’s proposals, partly because of political pressure, especially from the Liberal Democrats, partly because the financial implications were frightening, especially to the Conservatives, and partly because they came to seem, when looked at more closely, unworkable.)

One reason the Commons’ vote on 9 December 2010 to remove public funding from teaching and to triple undergraduate fees was a scandal is that such a measure hadn’t been in the election manifesto of any party – indeed, the Liberal Democrats had made a commitment to abolish fees – and hadn’t been subject to proper democratic scrutiny. Another reason was the flagrant disregard of what used to be normal government practice, whereby a measure is first spelled out in some detail in a White Paper, then subject to criticism and consultation, and only then turned into draft legislation to be debated and voted on in Parliament. But on this occasion we were told that the White Paper would follow rather than precede the key legislative decision. It would be published ‘shortly’. ‘Shortly’ came and went. We were told it would appear ‘in March’, then ‘in April’, until finally it was published on 28 June, more than six months after the legislation it was supposed to prepare the way for, and long after universities had been forced by that legislation to draw up financial plans without knowing how the new scheme would operate.

It became clear during this period that the government had made a serious miscalculation even on its own premises. We now know that when the decision was taken to replace the block grant with a loan system, the Treasury (presumably the real driving force behind the change) calculated that the initial expenditure on loans would more or less match current expenditure on the teaching grant if the average fee were no higher than £7500. But the Treasury had assumed that the Office for Fair Access (Offa), which oversees universities’ admissions policies, had the legal power to dictate how much a given university could charge, ensuring that fees would be kept down to the desired average level. But Offa has no such legal power, as its director was obliged to ‘remind’ the government. A great many universities were setting fees of £9000 (as anyone could have told the government they would). It slowly dawned on the government that not only was the scheme not going to reduce expenditure; it was actually going to be a lot more expensive than the present system. Whether one is broadly in favour of the new fee regime or not, there can be no denying that the policy-making process in the last eight months has been a shambles.

Arriving at such a late stage in this Whitehall farce, when many of its proposals had already been leaked, the White Paper’s publication seemed anti-climactic. Attention has focused principally on what the White Paper reveals about the government’s efforts to get out of the hole it has dug for itself, an awkward procedure that involves contradicting its professed market principles at almost every turn. It realises that it cannot in fact have an open ‘market’ in the recruitment of students, since the loans to students must be paid upfront and any rise in overall numbers will entail a corresponding rise in public expenditure. But if it keeps the cap on numbers with, as at present, allocations to each university, it worries that this fails to introduce proper ‘market discipline’ at the bottom: that is, it wants universities to be in a position where they might fail to be ‘competitive’ in recruiting students and so go bankrupt. Keeping some version of the current allocation of places would also make it difficult for ‘new providers’ (including private companies) to enter the field if they wanted to compete for students eligible for public loans.

We should pause over this question of student numbers, since it is in this part of the White Paper that the blandest phrases hide the sharpest ideological fangs. Faced with the conundrum of how to create a market within a structure which still reflects a centralised command economy, it has come up with the wheeze of a ‘core and margin’ model of allocating places. Let’s say that there are at present 360,000 full-time undergraduate places at English universities each year for UK-domiciled applicants (such figures are plagued by difficulties of definition). The government proposes to withhold some 85,000 of these places when making its allocations. The number each institution is initially allowed to recruit will be reduced pro rata, so that they will only be guaranteed about three-quarters of their present intake. Beyond that ‘core’, to recruit extra students they will have to compete in one of the two pools that make up the ‘margin’ of places. In the first of these pools, approximately 65,000 places will be reserved for applicants with A-level scores of AAB or higher. There will be no central controls on how many applicants a university may recruit from this pool. So, if an institution’s basic A-level offer is AAB or above (which is the case for most of the conventionally rated ‘top’ universities), it will not need to change its standard admission policies: a quarter of its regular intake can simply be designated as coming from the margin since they possess the requisite qualifications. In fact, it could take more students, up to the point at which no more of its applicants had the necessary A-levels, though quite apart from increased pressure on staff, facilities, accommodation and so on, there would be a delicate trade-off between increased numbers (and hence income) and reduced exclusivity.

The second pool will be made up of 20,000 places, to be competed for by institutions whose average fee does not exceed £7500. This is explicitly intended to make it possible for ‘new providers’ to enter the system, organisations such as further education colleges, charities and for-profit companies which do not at present have an allocation of places, but which would obtain them from this pool by undercutting universities. Students recruited from this pool by for-profit providers will be eligible for government-backed loans, so that public finance will help to boost the profits of the directors and shareholders of these companies. The implicit purpose of this policy is to force less highly ranked universities, if they are to fill their places, to reduce their fees below the level at which the Treasury, quite arbitrarily, decided the loan system should be funded. Moreover, since the total number of ‘funded’ places (that is, students eligible for loans) will stay more or less constant for now, the auctioning off of 20,000 places to the lowest bidder will necessarily be at the expense of the existing universities undercut by new providers. Some universities may even go bankrupt: ‘Providers that perform poorly under the new funding arrangements will primarily be those that fail to recruit enough students,’ but ‘the government does not guarantee to underwrite universities and colleges.’ The White Paper is silent on the damage this will do in terms of course closures and academic job losses; presumably it thinks academics can be re-employed at piece-rates by private providers. And this is only the beginning: in each succeeding year, we are told, the ‘core’ will shrink and the ‘margin’ will expand.

This plan is designed to produce a rigged market in which the ‘top providers’ will do well and there will be the usual race to the bottom at the lower end. The government has introduced de facto price controls, laying bare the hypocrisy in its proud affirmations that universities are ‘autonomous’, that admissions are ‘a matter between the student and the university’, that the government cannot dictate what fees universities set and so on. And it has done this after universities have already set their fee levels for 2012. Universities believed the system would operate by one set of rules, but now they have been told the rules have changed, and that some of them will be punished for decisions they were forced to make by the government’s own rushed timetable.

In keeping with its wholly phantasmal conception of competition, the White Paper declares confidently that the new system ‘should allow greater competition for places on the more selective courses and create the opportunity for more students to go to their first-choice institution if that university wishes to take them’. But the two parts of this assertion must be in contradiction: if there really will be more competition for the most sought-after places, then by definition opportunities for applicants to get their first-choice places will be reduced, not increased. The actual effect of the changes will be to make the distribution of resources for institutions match more closely the distribution of A-level scores. Just on fee income alone, students at institutions with an AAB offer or better will be better resourced, by quite a long way, than students at institutions with lower entry requirements. This is a naked example of the use of state power to entrench hierarchy in the name of ‘market principles’. By effectively ruling that a large number of universities must charge considerably less than the level it has legally permitted institutions to charge, the government is constructing a system that is bound to reinforce existing social inequalities. All the research shows that children at private schools have dramatically better chances of obtaining AAB at A-level than those at state schools. Now the universities they get into will be much better resourced as well. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that at this point the White Paper falls silent about its goal, much trumpeted elsewhere, of increasing ‘social mobility’.

These changes mean that Hefce largely ceases to be a funding council and becomes primarily a regulatory body and ‘consumer champion’. But there will still be a small residual teaching grant, and here the White Paper, like the Browne Report, reveals a curious unsteadiness about the extent to which the provision of courses by universities is or is not to be determined by ‘student choice’. Choice, we are frequently told, is to be the ‘driver’ of the new system: students will be willing to pay only for what they think is worth having, and universities will have to provide this or perish. Students operating as consumers will ensure market discipline (the ‘discipline’ is exerted on universities, which are assumed to need it). But then we find that the government will still provide a teaching grant direct to universities ‘to fund additional costs and public policy priorities that cannot be met by a student-led funding system alone’. Thus, the extra costs, over and above the ceiling for fees, of medicine, laboratory-based courses and others with high overheads will continue to be met centrally. But why should we assume that such courses would be less attractive to students if they were to be charged the full cost of providing them? The logic of the supposed market is that students will not always simply opt for the cheapest course, but will choose the higher price if they believe the quality, and the return in the form of future income, warrant it. That, after all, is supposed to be ‘high-quality’ universities’ selling point. So why does that logic not apply to higher-cost subjects such as science and engineering? ‘Market discipline’ surely means that if universities cannot find enough students to pay the fees for such subjects, then they should not be offering them.

A similar query may be raised about the proposal to maintain some element of the central grant for ‘strategically important and vulnerable’ subjects that ‘require support to avoid undesirable reductions in the scale of provision’. ‘Vulnerable’ here must mean that not enough students want to study them but that there are other reasons for maintaining them. Yet the crucial premise of the new system is that ‘providers’ will be forced to match their offerings to the wishes of ‘consumers’. If not enough students want to do a degree in, say, German, no matter how much a university brings its price down, then the laws of the market dictate that that degree should not be offered. What can ‘undesirable reductions in the scale of provision’ mean in a market system? At one point the White Paper concedes that Hefce should ensure ‘a healthy mix of subjects’. Indeed it should, but once that is acknowledged it follows that other values are capable of trumping ‘student choice’, and that to give effect to these values what we need is something remarkably like the present system of the teaching block grant, which enables the ‘scale of provision’ to be maintained far more effectively than by trying to pick up the pieces every time there is a shift in fashionable choices among 17-year-olds (or, more accurately, among 14-year-olds, given the determining effect of curriculum choices made at that age). Some kinds of ‘market failure’ ought to make it embarrassingly clear that what we are dealing with cannot be adequately comprehended as a ‘market’ in the first place.

Incidentally, the retention of some element of the teaching grant for ‘expensive’ subjects has aggravated the perception of a deliberate assault on the arts and humanities, since they will receive no such central subsidy. I have to say that, while these disciplines may suffer in various ways under the new system, this aspect of the proposals does not in fact single them out for exceptionally harsh treatment, since the recommended fee levels are higher than the current combination of fee and per capita grant for these courses. In purely financial terms, universities may turn out to have more incentive to put on humanities courses – provided they can find enough qualified applicants – than courses in physics and chemistry whose full costs they may not be able to recover, though Russell Group universities will be able to subsidise such courses from research income.

Beyond the warped ingenuity of these Heath Robinson schemes to force ‘free’ competition to happen in closely controlled circumstances, such interest as the White Paper possesses may lie chiefly in its providing a handy compendium of current officialese, a sottisier of econobabble. One of the most revealing features of its prose is the way the tense that might be called the mission-statement present is used to disguise implausible non sequiturs as universally acknowledged general truths. Here is one mantra, repeated in similar terms at several points: ‘Putting financial power into the hands of learners makes student choice meaningful.’ Part of the brilliance of the semantic reversals at the heart of such Newspeak lies in the simple transposition of negative to positive. After all, ‘putting financial power into the hands of learners’ means ‘making them pay for something they used to get as of right’. So forcing you to pay for something enhances your power. And then the empty, relationship-counselling cadence of the assertion that this ‘makes student choice meaningful’. Translation: ‘If you choose something because you care about it and hope it will extend your human capacities it will have no significance for you, but if you are paying for it then you will scratch people’s eyes out to get what you’re entitled to.’ No paying, no meaning. After all, why else would anyone do anything?

Another favoured tense in official documents is what might be called the dogmatic future. For example: allowing new providers to enter the market ‘will also lead to higher education institutions concentrating on high-quality teaching’. Not, you understand, in the way they concentrate on it at present, but in the way they ‘will’ when Cramme, Chargem and Skimp set up shop down the road. Or again: ‘empowering’ students by loading high levels of debt onto them will stimulate ‘competition between [sic] the best academics’. I suppose I must not know any of the ‘best’ academics referred to here, but I do know and admire many colleagues who at present prepare and deliver their lectures with extraordinary care and imagination. I shall have to explain to them that, despite their previous efforts, the fact that students are being forced into debt to get an education means that my admirable colleagues will henceforth be expected to trample each other down in the hope of winning a ‘best in show’ commendation from the drowsy emperors at the back of the hall. As always, despite the disingenuous use of terms such as ‘best’, the real assumption behind such reasoning is that academics are idle slackers who will do their job only if the whip of competition is applied to their flanks.

Another feature of the current BIS-speak that pervades the White Paper is the replacement of analysis of desirable goals by the pseudo-measurement of ‘consumer satisfaction’. The central concept here is ‘the student experience’, part of the individualist subjectivism by means of which market transactions hollow out human relations. The model is that of, say, a hotel guest, filling in the feedback questionnaire on the morning of departure. Was ‘the guest experience’ a good one? Did you find the fluffy towels fluffy enough? Sometimes, the use of such language is just a meaningless reflex, as when a perfectly sensible proposal to amalgamate the separate processes of applying for university and applying for loans to pay for university is said to ‘provide a seamless customer experience’. In other contexts, the same terminology serves as sales-speak. Magna Carta College in North Oxford, ‘an independent Business School offering high-quality affordable degree programmes’, promises potential applicants ‘the Oxford experience’. Of course, universities marketing ‘the student experience’ don’t need to worry that anyone will take them to be offering a simulacrum of the real thing.

Where all this talk about ‘the student experience’ starts to betray the purposes of education is in its focus on a narrow form of short-term box-ticking satisfaction. This is spelled out in one of those phrases that can easily delude the busy politician into believing that he is saying something, perhaps even what he intends to be saying. The proposals, we are told, are ‘crucial to ensuring that students experience the higher education they want’. On graduation (‘exiting the student experience’, we should say), it’s easy to imagine respondents ticking all the boxes to indicate that the goods and services they received corresponded to those promised, and yet being left with the uneasy feeling that they haven’t been – as we used to call it – educated. Not that practical things are unimportant or students’ views irrelevant or future employment an unworthy consideration: suggesting that critics of the proposals despise such things, as David Willetts did when discussing my LRB piece on the Browne Report (4 November 2010) in a speech at the British Academy, is just a way of setting up easily knocked-down straw opponents. It is, rather, that the model of the student as consumer is inimical to the purposes of education. The paradox of real learning is that you don’t get what you ‘want’ – and you certainly can’t buy it. The really vital aspects of the experience of studying something (a condition very different from ‘the student experience’) are bafflement and effort. Hacking your way through the jungle of unintelligibility to a few small clearings of partial intelligibility is a demanding and not always enjoyable process. It isn’t much like wallowing in fluffy towels. And it helps if you trust your guides rather than assuming they will skimp on the job unless they’re kept up to the mark by constant monitoring of their performance indicators.

It also has to be said that, even on the proposals’ own cockeyed premises, the system will not actually be driven by ‘student choice’ but by the decisions of schoolchildren and their parents. All the paraphernalia of marketing is brought to bear on the moment when sixth-formers choose the courses and universities they hope to get into. But even if one tries to elevate these anxious 17-year-olds to the full majesty of ‘consumers’, the analogy doesn’t hold: the ‘producers’ choose the ‘consumers’ at least as much as the other way round, and applicants mostly don’t get the chance to modify their behaviour as a result of their experience of the satisfactions yielded by rival products. For most school-leavers, applying to university is a one-off event: it is more like getting married than like buying soap powder. It cannot primarily be price-sensitive, adaptive, feedback-governed consumer behaviour.

The main proposal in the White Paper intended to ensure that university applicants act as fully informed consumers – when did you last meet one of those? – is to force all universities to publish a Key Information Set, which will include information about courses and their requirements, much of which is already available, plus statistics about student satisfaction, employment prospects and so on. The KIS, we are told (in another example of the dogmatic future tense), ‘will enable higher education institutions to illustrate the quality of the experience that they offer’. But of course ‘quality’ is just what such crude data cannot illustrate. Learning, for example, the ‘salary for that subject across all institutions 40 months after graduating’ will tell you nothing about the quality of teaching or education at a given institution, and the data will be hopelessly flawed unless the government adopts more draconian methods to identify named individuals’ salaries in the private sector. (One might almost be persuaded there was some merit to this particular proposal if it meant that the exact income of young bond traders and investment bankers would be made public.) As with so much in this document, measures which may in themselves have some merit – who could be against fuller provision of information? – are devalued by being turned into the premises of a tendentious set of claims about ‘markets’.

Critics of the current policy need to acknowledge that it is designed to tap into the anger of middle-class parents about the conditions their children encounter at many universities, principally very high student-staff ratios and a consequently low level of contact hours. But in so far as there is a problem here, it is due to two factors: first, the deliberate underfunding of the huge expansion in student numbers that has taken place in recent decades, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s; and, second, the distorting emphasis on ‘research productivity’ caused by the Research Assessment Exercise. Since the White Paper’s proposals do not address either of these problems, it seems a trifle optimistic to claim (in yet another example of the dogmatic future tense) that they ‘will put excellent teaching back at the heart of every student’s university experience’. ‘Back’ refers here, as so often in public discussion of universities, to some unspecified moment in the past when everything was so much better, but since the proposals say nothing about how the present average student-staff ratio of somewhere around 21:1 will be returned to its early 1960s level of around 8:1, and contain no suggestion that the exactions of the research assessment process will be reduced or eliminated, the claim that the policy is about improving students’ contact hours is bogus.

In England the government has been able to count on an element of indifference or even hostility to universities among a substantial section of the electorate, but in Scotland the situation is very different. There, the tradition of ‘the democratic intellect’ and universities’ historic accessibility (whether real or assumed) to ‘the lad o’ pairts’ means that tuition fees are an electoral liability. In the elections earlier this year, both the SNP and the Scottish Labour Party pledged not to introduce fees on the English model. Since education policy is a devolved matter but revenue-raising is, on the whole, a Whitehall prerogative, the decision by the new Scottish Executive to maintain the line against fees sets up a complex funding problem. The amount Scotland receives from the Treasury is governed by the Barnett formula, which ties it to the level of the budget for public expenditure in England, so unless Alex Salmond can work some other political magic, the funds the Scottish Executive has to devote to its various domestic priorities, including free university tuition for Scottish students, will be correspondingly reduced. The special fees charged by Scottish universities to English students, despite their being EU citizens, may also become a bone of contention.

Faced with the prospect in England of the hugely disruptive and potentially damaging dismantling of a system that has, by and large, worked well, one has to ask: why are they doing it? It cannot be simply about reducing public expenditure. Indeed, Willetts has proudly maintained that this policy does not represent a cut to universities, but a boost to their income of around 10 per cent by 2015. It’s just that from now on, he says, the money will be ‘channelled’ through students. But by 2015 the Treasury won’t have recouped a penny of the money it will have given out in loans since 2012, so that this 10 per cent rise must therefore be an increase in government expenditure on higher education above the cost of maintaining the present block grant (even though a loan is an asset not a cost in accountancy terms). After 2015, some students will start to pay some of their loans back, at varying rates, when they start to earn more than £21,000. On the most optimistic figures, it will take 30 years for the Treasury to recoup 70 per cent, at most, of what it provides in loans each year (other economic analysts think the government will never recover more than 50-55 per cent of the amount loaned). And the official figures are based on the Treasury’s assumption that the average fee would be £7500, which even the government must now realise will not be the case. Whatever else is said in favour of this policy, it cannot be maintained that it represents a saving in public expenditure in the short or medium term, even though in the longer term it does amount to a significant shift from public to private funding.

The cursory way in which the White Paper, here following the Browne Report, dismisses the case for any kind of graduate tax is revealing of its priorities. It would, of course, be perfectly possible to introduce a form of graduate contribution that resembled the proposed system in several respects, coming into effect only when earnings reach a certain level and ceasing after a certain notional sum has been paid. It would not be a loan for a fee, but a shared contribution, by those in a financial position to make it, to an area of public investment. It would be cheaper to administer, would have none of the deterrent effect of debt, and would enable universities to plan on the basis of a teaching grant that was assured over the medium term. All schemes have their pros and cons, but such a measure has not been rejected because of peripheral problems such as the difficulty of enforcing contributions from those who leave the country. It has been rejected because under such a scheme, as the White Paper frankly acknowledges, ‘universities would see their dependency on the state increased because they would be reliant on government for all their teaching funding and this would reduce their responsiveness to students.’ This is pure dogma: the rigged ‘fee’ method of funding is preferred because it promises to introduce more ‘consumer behaviour’ into the system.

It has another, less well-advertised, advantage too as far as the Treasury is concerned. Once the arrangement is up and running, the government can ‘monetise the loan book’, that is to say, sell the debt to one or more private financial institutions. Any such sale, we are told, would need ‘to reduce significantly government’s risk exposure to the loan book and represent value for money for the taxpayer’. But that being so, any private company that takes over the loans will need to find a way to extract more money from them than the government is planning to do, and will need to make a profit for shareholders as well as pay the huge salaries of its own executives. Does anyone seriously believe that a bank or any other private financial institution is going to be able to generate all this extra income from the loan book while maintaining the same terms and conditions for its constituent debtors as the government is offering?

But these financial calculations do not go to the root of the matter. The inescapable conclusion is that this huge gamble with one of the world’s most successful systems of higher education is being taken in order to bring universities to heel. From the mid-1980s, when the minister responsible for higher education, Robert Jackson, complained that universities were frustrating government efforts to ‘reform’ them by acting as a ‘cartel of producer interests’, successive administrations have sought for ways to make universities conform to their will. But these efforts have run up against the tension at the heart of all higher education policy. Whatever other functions societies have from time to time required universities to fulfil, they are primarily institutions devoted to extending and deepening human understanding, and if they are to do this successfully, students and teachers must be allowed to pursue whatever lines of inquiry seem likely to be most fertile without being entirely constrained by immediate practical outcomes. All kinds of benefit may flow to the host society from such inquiry, but will only do so via a route that is indirect and at one remove. This makes good universities maddeningly resistant to the government wish that they contribute more directly to current policy objectives, and the resistance is all the more maddening since universities are the recipients of large amounts of public money. UK governments over the past 30 years have made a series of attempts to square this circle by means of the spurs and whips of targets and assessments.

The decision in the summer of 2010 by George Osborne and the inner circle (as it surely was) to remove public funding for university teaching constitutes a radically different attempt to bring universities into line. The cunning plan is to portray students as the elite commandos of the new assault: with a loan as their weapon, they are to get inside the ivory tower and compel the inmates to do their bidding. ‘The reforms we have set out will open up higher education, making universities accountable to the students they serve … The right regulation should protect students and taxpayers’ and so on. In reality, universities are already, and necessarily, ‘accountable’ to society, including students, in all kinds of ways: it is cheap and empty rhetoric to suggest they exist purely to ‘serve students’, especially when this is really code for ‘respond to the expressed wishes of the consumer in the way other businesses have to do’. And who do students and taxpayers – an unlikely pairing, but one which, in the rhetoric of these proposals, it is tellingly difficult to disentangle – need to be protected from? It can only be from those complacent and self-interested universities, hell bent on – well, it’s not clear what exactly, but something undesirable anyway. With ‘students at the heart of the system’, so the reasoning goes, the ‘producers’ cartel’ will be dissolved.

We get several other glimpses of the future in these pages. One comes in an apparently anodyne section about the use of the title ‘university’. It will, we are told, be made easier for ‘new providers’ to acquire this title. The next paragraph continues, innocuously enough, by observing that ‘where higher education institutions want to change their legal status, it can be complex.’ But then, as we’re chugging through these inoffensive generalities, we are suddenly told: ‘We would ensure that, as the assets of a university have been acquired over time, partly as a result of direct public funding, the wider public interest will be protected in any such change of status.’ Why would this sentence be there unless the ‘change of status’ envisaged – this is never spelled out – is from public to private? The current corporate landscape is littered with examples of how well ‘the wider public interest’ has been protected when services and organisations have been enabled to ‘change their status’ in this way.

Or again, the White Paper commends the arrangement between the multinational accountancy firm KPMG and three ‘partner’ universities, according to which, essentially, the company pays all charges for a group of undergraduates following a special programme that leads to a guaranteed job with the firm. We are told that this deal was established with these particular universities ‘as they were passionate about its potential and had organisational values that fitted well with KPMG’s’. Leaving aside the current cant use of ‘passionate about’ to mean ‘interested in’ or ‘in favour of’, what catches the eye here is this alleged consilience of ‘values’. I am impressed, if a little surprised, to discover that the priorities of this huge financial corporation are the open-ended pursuit of human understanding, the rigour of close scholarship, and the other ‘organisational values’ to which these universities must, by their nature, be ‘passionately’ committed. Perhaps this signals an important turning-point where organisations hitherto focused on making the largest possible profits are now going to be principally committed to the life of the mind.

And we get an almost touching glimpse of the White Paper’s concern to ensure that the right values prevail in the future when it announces that, because some graduates will ‘aspire to run a business’, the government wants to see a student ‘enterprise society … in all universities in England’. No one is likely to object if some undergraduates want to spend the odd evening playing a few rounds of Start-up, but why should universities be forced to establish such playgroups? Could there be just the tiniest sign of anxiety here that universities may, unless constantly brought into line, encourage people to think about something other than how to make a quick buck?

The White Paper twice quotes a celebrated phrase from the Robbins Report: ‘Courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.’ The implicit claim is that the government’s radically new policies are in some sense a continuation of those inaugurated by Robbins. But it may have been unwise for the drafting team at BIS to remind their readers of the cadence of Robbins’s prose, since it seems bound to provoke some thinking about how far we have travelled from the assumptions expressed by that prose, how that has happened, and whether something valuable may not have been lost along the way. We might, for example, be reminded of the following passage from Robbins:

It is the essence of higher education that it introduces students to a world of intellectual responsibility and intellectual discovery in which they are to play their part … The element of partnership between teacher and taught in a common pursuit of knowledge and understanding, present to some extent in all education, should become the dominant element as the pupil matures and as the intellectual level of work done rises … The student needs from the beginning to be made aware of the scope of his subject and to realise that he is not being presented with a mass of information but initiated into a realm of free inquiry … Most discussion of this subject clouds the issue by setting teaching and research over against each other as antithetical and supposing an opposition that exists only at extreme points, as if teaching were nothing but patient recapitulation and explanation of the known and all research were a solitary voyage to discover something that will be intelligible to a mere handful of persons.

Or, before our minds are utterly numbed by the boardroom language of the White Paper, we might remind ourselves of the deeper understanding of universities evident in the following:

Universities have an obligation to preserve and advance knowledge and to serve the intellectual needs of the nation. University teachers must keep abreast of new developments in their subjects and need time for reflection and personal study. Many also want to make their own contribution to such developments and this desire must not be frustrated if they are to remain intellectually alive. In addition, the influence and authority of those who have become acknowledged experts in their own fields of study radiate out far beyond the walls of the university in which they teach. Such persons are rightly required to undertake many duties in the cause of learning and in the interest of the country and indeed of the world, for learning is international. These compete for time with duties within the university. Again, it is the duty of universities to foster the study of new subjects and to ensure that subjects that are important but that do not attract great numbers of students are adequately studied. The ratio of teachers to students in the universities thus needs to be more favourable than the ratio in other institutions of higher education that do not have in the same measure the duty to preserve and advance knowledge.

In neither of these passages is the language slack or indulgent: they sternly talk of the ‘obligation’ of universities, and of how university teachers are ‘rightly required’ to undertake ‘duties’, and so on. But what such passages display, and what the White Paper so lamentably lacks, is a considered understanding of the character of intellectual inquiry and of the conditions needed to sustain it successfully across a wide range of subjects and across many generations. Universities cannot be glibly said to exist ‘to serve students’: that neglects precisely ‘the element of partnership between teacher and taught in a common pursuit of knowledge and understanding’ which Robbins identifies. The language of these passages is well informed and accurate: teaching at this level is not simply the ‘patient recapitulation and explanation of the known’; university teachers ‘need time for reflection and personal study’ if they are to ‘keep abreast of new developments in their subjects’, and so on. Such phrases would stick out in current HiEdspeak precisely because they are modest yet confident, not all outer bluster and inner defensiveness.

Lionel Robbins, it should be remembered, was a neoclassical economic theorist and no admirer of socialism or left-wing ideas more generally. The case against the White Paper, and against the shift in public discourse that it both reflects and tries to push further, does not involve the repudiation of economic reasoning any more than it involves some supposedly utopian disregard for the financial cost of public services, education included. Similarly, pointing to the damage likely to be done to universities by the application of business-school models of ‘competing producers’ and ‘demanding consumers’ is not to indulge a nostalgic desire to return to the far smaller and more selective higher education system of 30 or 40 years ago. The expansion of the proportion of the age-cohort entering higher education from 6 per cent to 44 per cent is a great democratic gain that this society should not wish to retreat from. To the contrary, we should be seeking to ensure that those now entering universities in still increasing numbers are not cheated of their entitlement to an education, not palmed off, in the name of ‘meeting the needs of employers’, with a narrow training that is thought by right-wing policy-formers to be ‘good enough for the likes of them’, while the children of the privileged classes continue to attend properly resourced universities that can continue to boast of their standing in global league tables. There is nothing fanciful or irresponsible in believing that this great public good of expanded education can and should be largely publicly funded. This White Paper and the legislation already enacted are not about finding ‘fairer’ ways to pay for higher education or, in any meaningful sense, about putting ‘students at the heart of the system’. Rather, they represent the latest instalment in the campaign to replace the assumptions of Robbins’s world with those of McKinsey’s.